What do we think society is? A relationship between people, perhaps, especially one characterised by a mutual interest in each other's well-being. Less abstractly, something manifested in institutions such as schools, hospitals, churches – the things that enable people, in general, to live lives that matter to them. It's the thing that – in favour of individuals and their families – Margaret Thatcher tried to deny.
But this is not necessarily what society is. Society isn't a relationship, mediated through institutions. Society is a thing – a living thing. Specifically, society as we know it is a vast sea monster. The English Civil War-era political theorist Thomas Hobbes called this monster the Leviathan. Tentacled, oozing, always hungry – the Leviathan holds us together not out of any higher, finer sentiments, but simply because it needs to extract value from us in order to grow. If we are to believe Hobbes, then in the earliest years of humanity our leaders signed a contract with this Leviathan, binding our wills to it in exchange for security – a sort of primal protection racket. And since then we have remained its servants: half-choked, sick things unable to realise our true nature beyond the monster's grasp.
We received a stark reminder of this fact earlier this week, when the leaked Paradise Papers exposed everyone from the Queen to Bono to the cast of Mrs Brown's Boys as being complicit in a vast international offshore tax scam. Just like the Panama Papers leak in 2016, the Paradise Papers provide hard evidence for the hypothesis that it is not only completely normal, but even actively expected, for the most prosperous members of society to take steps to hide their money away from the public good, in order to be able to invest more of it in schemes that enrich them, precisely at our expense.
The Queen's investment portfolio can provide us with a striking illustration of the sort of trick that is being pulled here. Admittedly, the Queen herself is too constitutionally neutral to be allowed to do anything as profound as invest money on her own behalf. But the Duchy of Lancaster, which exists as a sort of personal investment fund for the monarch, has been found to have holdings of more than £10 million in the tax havens of Bermuda and the Cayman Islands. Funds from which the Crown's money draws interest have put money into businesses such as the "rent-to-own" retailer BrightHouse, which sells consumer goods via such nakedly exploitative credit arrangements that they've been fined for it by the Financial Conduct Authority.
Essentially, then, our tax money has been going to the Crown in the form of the Sovereign Grant (recently increased, ostensibly to fund repairs to Buckingham Palace), which has then been siphoning it off to some of its old imperial holdings, from where it has been used to make our beloved Queen still more money by investing in firms which prey on the poorest and most vulnerable members of society.
When we encounter something like the Paradise Papers, our first reaction is probably to be outraged by it, as if what is going on here is a miscarriage of justice – an abuse of a system of tax and investment that, if only it were administered properly, would indeed serve the interests of society in general, "little people" like us included. Seen this way, the offenders listed in the Paradise Papers represent a corruption of the norm.
But this would be naïve. Once we recognise that society is a sea monster, an organism that lustily extracts value from us in order to grow, we can see the real problem with what the Paradise Papers expose. The system portrayed by the Paradise Papers is not a failing one; it is a system functioning exactly as it is supposed to.
Marx talks about surplus-value being extracted by capitalists from our labour, who then invest this value in order to help them exploit us even more: our labour comes to stand over us as an alien power. Perhaps this is why so many people are convinced that the Queen is, in truth, some sort of extraterrestrial lizard. The super-rich are nothing if not the monster's agents, and the more effectively they can weaponise the fruits of our own labour against us, the better they will be doing their jobs.
This explains the difficulty of trying to confront something like this. The Duchy of Lancaster, for example, became Crown property in 1399 – and although the surpluses have increased markedly with the advent of neoliberalism, it served pretty much the same function then. This poison is ancient, and it runs deep.
Let's face it: we all know how a news event like this goes. As with the earlier Panama Papers leaks, a few extra regulations will be put on the statute book, a few suckers they're out to get anyway will take a financial hit (Michael Ashcroft, buddy, you should never have told everyone the Prime Minister stuck his dick in a dead pig's head), and then the whole enterprise will pick up again as normal until the next big leak. Already the forces of "fairness" and "balance" have been deployed, trying their best to make it look as if the super-rich conspiring to swindle humanity is little more than a difference of opinion.
In his Evening Standard editorial, George Osborne has urged us not to let this scandal undermine our faith in the fundamental worth of our financial and legal institutions. In Parliament yesterday, the Financial Secretary to the Treasury Mel Stride, who was speaking in place of the Chancellor for some reason, insisted that the government believes in "a fair tax system where everyone plays by the rules", and that in this context "there are many good reasons why, for perfectly honest and decent purposes", individuals may choose to put their money in offshore trusts.
To really confront this, we would need to free ourselves from the tentacled grip of this thing we call society. We would need to clean from ourselves its festering ooze, come together, united, to slay the monster for good.
Perhaps in such a moment, society in its true sense would be able to emerge.